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As Harvey submerges Houston, local officials defend their calls not to evacuate

By Amy B Wang, Cleve R. Wootson Jr., Ed O'Keefe

August 28, 2017 at 3:59 PM

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Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner defended his decision not issue an evacuation order for Houston. (Reuters)

Through Monday morning, Harvey continued to unleash record levels of rain on Houston, causing “catastrophic” flooding in the city and in surrounding Harris County, where at least six people appear to have died as a result of the storm.

Some parts of Harris County have received more than 30 inches of rain since Friday, according to the National Weather Service. The NWS warned of “additional catastrophic, unprecedented and life threatening flooding” through this week and placed flash-flood emergencies for all of Southeast Texas.

As the much-anticipated storm pummeled the country’s fourth-largest city — overwhelming the 911 system and sending some residents, against the advice of officials, into their attics to flee floodwaters — many asked the question: Should Houston have been evacuated? If so, why wasn’t it?

At least one top official thought it should have been.

On Friday, before Harvey made landfall, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) encouraged residents to evacuate low lying and coastal areas, even if a mandatory evacuation order had not been issued.

“Even if an evacuation order hasn’t been issued by your local official, if you’re in an area between Corpus Christi and Houston, you need to strongly consider evacuating,” Abbott said at a news conference. “What you don’t know, and what nobody else knows right now, is the magnitude of flooding that will be coming.

“You don’t want to put yourself in a situation where you could be subject to a search and rescue.”

The governor’s warning was in sharp contrast to the advice local and county officials had been dispensing for days: Shelter and stay in place.

And it set off a scramble by local officials on social media to tell Houston-area residents otherwise.

“LOCAL LEADERS KNOW BEST,” Francisco Sanchez, spokesman for the Harris County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, tweeted in response to Abbott’s warning.

There were no evacuation orders in Houston, and orders only existed in a few communities in Harris County, Sanchez stressed on Friday afternoon.

In a follow-up tweet, Sanchez urged residents to heed the advice of local officials, such as Harris County Judge Ed Emmett and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, rather than the governor.

On Saturday morning, as Hurricane Harvey’s powerful winds and rain caused severe damage to coastal communities, the Houston mayor warned people there would be heavy rain and flooding in the city for the next four to five days — but once again emphasized they did not need to evacuate.

Turner also addressed concerns that Abbott and local officials had sent conflicting messages about what was safer: fleeing or staying in place.

“Quite frankly, leaving your homes, getting on the streets, you’ll be putting yourself in more danger and not making yourself safer,” he said. “And so, we’re just asking people to hunker down.”

The following day, as the storm’s devastating toll came into better focus, Turner defended his call for people to stay in place.

“There was a lot of conversation about the direction in which hurricane Harvey was going to go,” he said at a news conference Sunday. “No one knew which direction it was going to go. So it’s kind of different to send people away from danger when you don’t know where the danger is.”

He added that trying to evacuate the city in such a short time would have been logistically “crazy,” as history has shown.

“Remember the last time we evacuated, there was a great deal of confusion, great deal of chaos,” the mayor said. “There were people that were going to Austin that were on the road 10 to 12 hours, if not longer. There were people who ran out of gas on their way — a great deal of confusion.”

Turner was referring to the city’s evacuation ahead of Hurricane Rita in 2005, a disastrous effort that resulted in dozens of deaths and widespread criticism of the authorities.

Emmett, Harris County’s chief executive, echoed Turner’s thoughts Sunday, telling reporters there was “absolutely no reason” to evacuate the city before the storm.

“You cannot put, in the city of Houston, 2.3 million people on the road. … That is dangerous,” the judge said, according to CNN. “If you think the situation right now is bad — you give an order to evacuate, you create a nightmare.”

And during a record breaking flood, one expert said, inside a car is one of the most dangerous places to be, which complicates the decision to evacuate.

“People disproportionately die in cars from floods, so evacuation is not as straightforward a call as seems,” Marshall Shepherd, a program director in atmospheric sciences at the University of Georgia, tweeted Sunday.

Still, reports and images from Houston and Harris County showed it was increasingly difficult for people to stay off the streets.

As The Washington Post reported, Texas officials had begun to get a sense of the full magnitude of the storm, including its effect on rivers and levees:

The Brazos River, which runs southwest of Houston, is expected to reach record heights in the coming days. National Weather Service models showed the river rising to 59 feet by Tuesday, topping the previous record of 54.7 feet.

“A flood of this magnitude is an 800-year event, and it exceeds the design specification of our levees,” Fort Bend County Judge Robert Hebert said in a statement Monday.

The National Weather Service — which tweeted the “beyond anything experienced” description that morning — was predicting that parts of Texas could receive nearly 50 inches of rain, the largest recorded total in the state’s history.

FEMA Administrator William “Brock” Long said Monday that Harvey could force 30,000 people into shelters, and he anticipated 450,000 people would seek some sort of disaster assistance.

“We have not seen an event like this,” he said. “You could not draw this forecast up. You could not dream this forecast up.”

Related: [Trump praises storm response as millions brace for historic flooding]

Houston and Harris County officials who urged people to stay home before the storm may have been remembering that the city government was strongly criticized after the disastrous evacuation before Hurricane Rita in 2005.

In the hours before Rita struck the Houston area in September 2005, government officials issued an evacuation order, and some 2.5 million people hit the road at the same time, according to the Houston Chronicle.

Officials later reported more than 100 deaths connected to Hurricane Rita — and at least 60 of those deaths were linked the evacuation itself, according to a 2006 report to the Texas House of Representatives.

Dozens were injured or died of heat stroke waiting in traffic for nearly a full day. Fights broke out on clogged highways. A charter bus carrying people from a nursing home exploded on the side of Interstate 45, killing 24 people inside.

Meanwhile, the fear from Hurricane Rita turned out to be unfounded. It weakened from a Category 5 churning in the Gulf of Mexico to a Category 3 by the time it made landfall in East Texas — and resulted in a fraction of the damage and deaths as Hurricane Katrina, which had ravaged New Orleans three weeks earlier.

After Hurricane Rita, many in Houston returned to their homes after hours of languishing on the highway “and found the house was fine and the street wasn’t flooded,” according to Madhu Beriwal, the president and chief executive of IEM, a disaster planning and prevention company who has worked in Harris County. Her company wasn’t involved in planning for Hurricane Harvey, and she said she did not advise officials about whether to evacuate the city.

In evacuation planning, public officials are trying to find “the course of least regret,” Beriwal said. Traveling by car has inherent risks, and any mandatory evacuation order comes with the grim understanding that people will die trying to get out, she added.

“We know that there’s going to result in a certain number of deaths just by having so many people on the road,” Beriwal told The Post. “When you have evacuation traffic, it’s even more difficult, because you have people that are very vulnerable traveling. … The people that tend to die in bigger numbers (during evacuations) are generally the elderly — people that wouldn’t normally be on the road anyway.”

But no matter which path officials decide to take, Beriwal said, “It is always better to speak with one voice so people know what the officials think is the best thing to do.”

After Rita, officials began changing laws and government programs to improve future evacuations.

The state’s emergency management division began to work more closely with municipalities to coordinate hurricane response plans, the Texas Tribune reported, “including finding ways to restore power sooner.”

Lawmakers amended statutes to make it easier for emergency workers from other parts of the state to help during a crisis, the Tribune reported, and removed liability worries that hindered mutual aid.

Now, state and local authorities participate in drills to reverse the traffic flow on the highway to “ensure various agencies stay familiar with the process.”

On Monday, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo was asked by a Fox Business Network anchor whether it was a mistake not to order an evacuation ahead of Harvey.

“Oh lord, you know I love the backseat quarterbacks,” he said. “I absolutely support the decision of our mayor and the county judge to not evacuate. Where do you take … 6.5 million people, where do you send them? Especially in a state that is so prone to flash floods on our highways, we haven’t been able to get resources here because highways have been blocked throughout the state of Texas.

“So I don’t think they understand the complexity, they don’t understand just how widespread this entire emergency has been.”

Texas State Rep. Armando Walle, who represents a district that stretches from northern reaches of Houston into unincorporated parts of Harris County, told The Post on Monday the decision against ordering evacuations probably saved lives.

“You would have had a calamity of biblical proportions; that’s not an overstatement,” he said. “If you put 1 million cars on the road when every major road in this region is under water, it would have been a disaster. There are challenges in any disaster, but that decision not to call for mandatory evacuations was the right decision. I believe that you would have had thousands of people perish. … People have listened to their local leaders and are paying attention.”

Thia NOAA-NASA GOES Project satellite image taken at 1737 UTC on August 24, 2017 shows storm activity off the south east coast of the US. A major storm, Harvey, was upgraded to hurricane status on August 24, 2017, as it targeted hundreds of miles of coastline in Texas and Louisiana. The US National Hurricane Center (NHC) warned of a potential for "life threatening" floods from the storm, which was due to make landfall sometime on August 25, 2017.The NHC said the category one hurricane could hit land as a much more powerful category three, with winds of 130 miles (209 kilometers) per hour. / AFP PHOTO / NOAA-NASA GOES Project / Handout / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO /NOAA-NASA GOES PROJECT/HANDOUT" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS HANDOUT/AFP/Getty Images
A traffic sign reminds motorists to prepare for Hurricane Harvey on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017, in Houston. The National Hurricane Center is forecasting Harvey will become a major hurricane to hit the middle Texas coastline. (Godofredo A. Vasquez/Houston Chronicle via AP)
William Hazzard loads water into his car in preparation for tropical weather on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017, in Houston. Tropical Storm Harvey is expected to intensify over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico before reaching the Texas coast Friday. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Hundreds of sandbags are seen behind City of Brownsville workers as they shovel and sack Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2017, at Pct. 1 County Commissioner Sofia C Benavides and Pct. 2 County Commissioner Alex Dominguez warehouse along MagneTek Drive and 14th Street in Brownsville, Texas, in preparation of what is now the remnants of Tropical Storm Harvey. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald via AP)
Marina employees secure the boater's facility at the Corpus Christi Marina in preparation for Hurricane Harvey on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017 in Corpus Christi, Texas. Forecasters said a "life-threatening" storm surge along with rains and wind were likely as Hurricane Harvey was intensifying faster than previously forecast. (Rachel Denny Clow/Corpus Christi Caller-Times via AP)
Ken Knox secures a friend's boat at the Corpus Christi Marina in preparation for Hurricane Harvey on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017 in Corpus Christi, Texas. Forecasters said a "life-threatening" storm surge along with rains and wind were likely as Hurricane Harvey was intensifying faster than previously forecast. (Rachel Denny Clow/Corpus Christi Caller-Times via AP)
Bill Tippett, with the Salvation Army disaster department, deliver supplies of water and clean up kits to the Salvation Army in preparation for Hurricane Harvey on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017 in Corpus Christi, Texas. Forecasters said a "life-threatening" storm surge along with rains and wind were likely as Hurricane Harvey was intensifying faster than previously forecast. (Rachel Denny Clow/Corpus Christi Caller-Times via AP)
A sign warns of a Texas coastal hurricane watch as traffic passes by in Hutchins, Texas, Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017. A hurricane warning was issued for most of the central and southern Texas coast Thursday morning. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
Mayor Joe McComb talks about storm surge in the Corpus Christi, Texas area during a news conference in preparation for Hurricane Harvey on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017 in Corpus Christi, Texas. Forecasters said a "life-threatening" storm surge along with rains and wind were likely as Hurricane Harvey was intensifying faster than previously forecast. (Gabe Hernandez/Corpus Christi Caller-Times via AP)
Bryan Tumlinson installs storm shutters on his store, Island Joes Coffee and Gallery, on North Padre Island in Corpus Christi, Texas, ahead of Tropical Storm Harvey on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017. Tropical Storm Harvey intensified Thursday into a hurricane that forecasters said would be the first major hurricane to hit the middle Texas coastline in nearly 15 years. (Courtney Sacco/Corpus Christi Caller-Times via AP)/Corpus Christi Caller-Times via AP)
Evelyn Lynch and her daughter, Sucorro, stock up on canned goods in preparation of Hurricane Harvey on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017, at the Kroger in Galveston, Texas. The National Hurricane Center is forecasting Harvey will become a major hurricane to hit the middle Texas coastline. (Jennifer Reynolds /The Galveston County Daily News via AP)
Aaron Berg fills up a gas can and his portable generator Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017, in Houston as Hurricane Harvey intensifies in the Gulf of Mexico. Harvey is forecast to be a major hurricane when it makes landfall along the middle Texas coastline. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Shoppers pass empty shelves along the bottled water aisle in a Houston grocery store as Hurricane Harvey intensifies in the Gulf of Mexico, Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017. Harvey is forecast to be a major hurricane when it makes landfall along the middle Texas coastline. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
CORPUS CHRISTI, TX - AUGUST 25: A sign on a business reads, 'Closed for Harvey', as people prepare for approaching Hurricane Harvey on August 25, 2017 in Corpus Christi, Texas. Hurricane Harvey has intensified into a hurricane and is aiming for the Texas coast with the potential for up to 3 feet of rain and 125 mph winds. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
CORPUS CHRISTI, TX - AUGUST 25: Lilyann Lewis packs pinky into the vehicle as her family packs up and evacuates their home before the approaching Hurricane Harvey on August 25, 2017 in Corpus Christi, Texas. Hurricane Harvey has intensified into a hurricane and is aiming for the Texas coast with the potential for up to 3 feet of rain and 125 mph winds. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Carolyn Price empties a fridge on the lower level of her property in Matagorda, Texas before Hurricane Harvey makes landfall Friday, Aug. 25, 2017. Conditions were deteriorating along Texas's Gulf Coast on Friday as Hurricane Harvey strengthened and slowly moved toward the state, with forecasters warning that evacuations and preparations "should be rushed to completion." Price and her husband David drove down from Lake Conroe to retrieve their power fishing boat and other belongings after hearing the surge would reach 10-12 feet. (Godofredo A. Vasquez/Houston Chronicle via AP)
CORPUS CHRISTI, TX - AUGUST 25: Cody Munds, Lee Martin and John Pezzi (L-R) fill sandbags as people prepare for approaching Hurricane Harvey on August 25, 2017 in Corpus Christi, Texas. Hurricane Harvey has intensified into a hurricane and is aiming for the Texas coast with the potential for up to 3 feet of rain and 125 mph winds. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Clouds and rain form over downtown Corpus Christi, Texas, as the outer bands of Hurricane Harvey move closer to shore, Friday, Aug. 25, 2017. The National Hurricane Center warns that conditions are deteriorating as Hurricane Harvey strengthens and slowly moves toward the Texas coast. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Ramon Lopez, left, and Arturo Villarreal board up windows of a business in Galveston, Texas as Hurricane Harvey intensifies in the Gulf of Mexico Friday, Aug. 25, 2017. Harvey is forecast to be a major hurricane when it makes landfall along the middle Texas coastline. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Matt Looingvill struggles with his umbrella as he tries to walk in the wind and rain, Friday, Aug. 25, 2017, in Corpus Christi, Texas. Harvey intensified into a hurricane Thursday and steered for the Texas coast with the potential for up to 3 feet of rain, 125 mph winds and 12-foot storm surges in what could be the fiercest hurricane to hit the United States in almost a dozen years.(AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Luis Perez watches waves crash again a jetty in Galveston, Texas as Hurricane Harvey intensifies in the Gulf of Mexico Friday, Aug. 25, 2017. Harvey is forecast to be a major hurricane when it makes landfall along the middle Texas coastline. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
A family is helped to a bus as they are evacuated as the outer bands of Hurricane Harvey begin to make landfall, Friday, Aug. 25, 2017, in Corpus Christi, Texas. Harvey intensified into a hurricane Thursday and steered for the Texas coast with the potential for up to 3 feet of rain, 125 mph winds and 12-foot storm surges in what could be the fiercest hurricane to hit the United States in almost a dozen years.(AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Martha Wilson, center, listens to a radio as she waits to be evacuated with others as the outer bands of Hurricane Harvey begin to make landfall, Friday, Aug. 25, 2017, in Corpus Christi, Texas. Harvey intensified into a hurricane Thursday and steered for the Texas coast with the potential for up to 3 feet of rain, 125 mph winds and 12-foot storm surges in what could be the fiercest hurricane to hit the United States in almost a dozen years.(AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Officials deliver water to an holding area for residents waiting to be evacuated, Friday, Aug. 25, 2017, in Corpus Christi, Texas. Harvey intensified into a hurricane Thursday and steered for the Texas coast with the potential for up to 3 feet of rain, 125 mph winds and 12-foot storm surges in what could be the fiercest hurricane to hit the United States in almost a dozen years.(AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Texas A&M University at Galveston students Erica Tomlinson, from left, Kourtney Gasaway and Kara Jackson wait to evacuate the Mitchell Campus on Pelican Island in Galveston, Texas as Hurricane Harvey nears the Gulf coast Friday, Aug. 25, 2017, in Galveston, Texas. The students were bussed to the College Station campus. (Jennifer Reynolds/The Galveston County Daily News via AP)
A sign above Interstate 10 in Beaumont, Texas, warns travelers to stay away from the coast as Hurricane Harvey bears down on the state on Friday, Aug. 25, 2017. (Ryan Pelham/The Beaumont Enterprise via AP)
Twana Phillips is hit by a gust of wind while standing along the seawall in Galveston, Texas as Hurricane Harvey intensifies in the Gulf of Mexico Friday, Aug. 25, 2017. Harvey is forecast to be a major hurricane when it makes landfall along the middle Texas coastline. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
People rest while waiting to board a bus headed for San Antonio at an evacuation center in Corpus Christi, Texas on Friday, Aug. 25, 2017. Hundreds of residents of the Corpus Christi area boarded buses Friday to be transported to a shelter in San Antonio as Hurricane Harvey is expected to make landfall on the Texas coast Friday night or early Saturday morning. (Nick Wagner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)
UNITED STATES - AUGUST 25: In this NASA handout, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASAs Terra satellite acquired this natural-color image of Hurricane Harvey reaching the Gulf Coast at 12:25 p.m. local time (17:25 UTC) on August 25, 2017. (Photo by NASA via Getty Images)
PORT LAVACA, TX - AUGUST 25: Justin Karl, and Stockton Quirey, 17, board up a window as they prepare to ride out the storm with family and friends at the Green Iguana Grill as Hurricane Harvey intensifies in the Gulf of Mexico in Port Lavaca, TX on Friday, Aug 25, 2017. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
PORT LAVACA, TX - AUGUST 25: Jack Rigby, 17, lays on a mattress as he along with is family and friends prepare to ride out the storm at the Green Iguana Grill as Hurricane Harvey intensifies in the Gulf of Mexico in Port Lavaca, TX on Friday, Aug 25, 2017. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Gov. Greg Abbott speaks at a news conference about Hurricane Harvey at the State Operations Center in Austin, Texas, on Friday, Aug. 25, 2017. Hurricane Harvey is shaping up as just about a worst-case scenario storm with possible flooding from two different directions. ( Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)
TxDOT crews install the final portion of a surge wall on TX-361 leading to the Port Aransas ferry in Aransas Pass, Texas, on Friday, Aug. 25, 2017. Conditions deteriorated Friday along the Texas Gulf Coast as Hurricane Harvey strengthened and crawled toward the state, with forecasters warning that evacuations and preparations "should be rushed to completion." (Nick Wagner /Austin American-Statesman via AP)
Strong winds batter a house on Padre Island before the approaching Hurricane Harvey in Corpus Christi, Texas on August 25, 2017. Hurricane Harvey will soon hit the Texas coast with forecasters saying it is possible expect up to 3 feet of rain and 125 mph winds. / AFP PHOTO / MARK RALSTONMARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images
Photo Gallery: Tropical Storm Harvey intensified into a hurricane that forecasters said would be the first major one to hit Texas in nine years.

This post has been updated.

Read more:

FEMA director says Harvey is probably the worst disaster in Texas history

Catastrophic flooding underway in Houston and ‘expected to worsen’

Harvey drops nearly two feet of water on Houston area, causing deadly floods

‘All night of slam, bang, boom,’ then a scramble to assess the hurricane’s damage


Amy B Wang is a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post.

Cleve Wootson is a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post.

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter who has covered congressional and presidential politics since 2008. He previously covered federal agencies, the federal workforce and spent a brief time covering the war in Iraq. Follow @edatpost.

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